Suriname Food For Thought
A Most Precious Gift
geert camerlinkcx/ eyesonsuriname
Amsterdam May 2nd 2023–Perhaps it was not experienced as such by most, but the most precious gift Surinamese society has received in the past year comes from the Constitutional Court.
More specifically when its president announced on 5 August that the most recently used electoral system had not passed constitutional scrutiny.
The mere fact that that judgment followed barely 6 months after the application was submitted to the Court in this regard gives me hope. For someone like me, a 46-year-old Fleming, such a term seems almost surreal. People of my kind who were born, raised and socially molded according to what was once the acclaimed Napoleonic model, are no longer used to such short periods of time.
These are simply beyond our Western bureaucracy-distorted comprehension.
When I read the decision in question, and look at the way it came about, then I think: Suriname does have a solid court that dares and can correct the political order. In that respect, Suriname – I deliberately limit myself to matters of an institutional nature – does have the characteristics of a constitutional state. In other words, there are institutions where the telephone does not stop ringing, where citizens’ concerns are the subject of hearings of the very highest, where scholars sit who succeed in presenting the political class with a fait accompli.
The final, voluminous and well-founded conclusion also contains hardly any language errors (which is the only bit of cynicism I can afford).
Again, 6 months is fast to make such an important decision. We Europeans, on the other hand, have come to rest in the knowledge that it automatically takes a generation to make major decisions.
In the countries where I have lived and worked – all textbook examples of apparent democracy and ditto efficiency – one generation is often not enough.
For example, it took Belgium 49 years to split a bilingual constituency.
In Italy, it took 53 years to complete a two-lane motorway.
The permitting process for a theatre, sports stadium or an above-average shopping center takes on average roughly 20 years in the aforementioned countries.
This has everything to do with our oversupply of political institutions and the constitutional duty to review them all in cross-competence issues.
An average European country has 3 to 4 administrative levels (municipality, province, region, federal state) and on top of that are the various institutions of the European Union to which most countries have leased their sovereignty. These procedures to go through them one by one, to often see the ball bounced back, are a scourge that I do not wish on Suriname.
All in all, Suriname can consider itself fortunate that it has a simple electoral and not too cumbersome political system. A system that allows the ship to be steered in the direction indicated by the coalition without too much maneuvering. The ‘all in all’ refers to the other side of the coin: That relatively smooth controllability naturally implies that the right people are at the helm. It is therefore extremely important to have the right tools. Believe me, there is nothing wrong with the Surinamese structures of the legislative and executive powers (I repeat ‘an sich’). Many Western politicians with whom I discuss this are even, secretly or otherwise, jealous of this. It then remains only to hope that the seats in the National Assembly will go to elected officials who hold office with dignity.
In Europe, this is often not the case.
The less disciplined columnist is quick to talk about a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ or ‘cold room’ when it comes to one of the country’s 6 governments and parliaments.
At first glance, this seems to be not too bad in Suriname. Actually, I mean that as an outsider, based on the socio-economic state of the nation, you would expect much worse. I often hear or read interventions that positively surprise me. But I also sometimes have trouble suppressing a fit of laughter.
Just like in mine and in our own region, the latter has much, if not all, to do with the forced way in which the selection of candidates is based on the current electoral system. Indeed, some of them do not seem to be cut out for the job.
It is no coincidence that these few – as a study of the latest election results shows – have the greatest chance of being filtered out of the Assembly after application of the ‘one person one vote’ principle. A little political scientist/statistician can easily explain this.
Anyway, the current/last chink arrangement is unrelated as long as 2 of its articles are not either corrected or replaced (or deleted).pt and included in another article in case of wider revision). Failure to do so will result in chaos of the undesirable kind. That assignment is not very difficult in terms of content – an average lawyer can easily handle that job in a few days -, it is all the more so in terms of legislation. Understandably, the Court has not attached a manual or step-by-step plan to its decision on how to accomplish this, but assume that, despite other views on the matter, this requires a 2/3 majority in DNA.
Roughly translated, this assignment boils down to collecting 34 bona fide parliamentarians, people with the right sense of citizenship. In practice, the question can be reduced to: Are there more than 17 democratic dissidents in DNA? By this I mean those MPs who are either 1) not in favor of the ‘one person one vote’ principle, 2) opportunists who benefit from political or social chaos, 3) not covered by the previous point, those who to reckon with her possible failures. Although less logical, honesty forces me to add that group that is taking longer than hoped for the country’s recovery.
It might turn out to be a dime. That is why I see it happening that the whole issue will finally be settled by means of a popular referendum. A referendum has the de facto advantage that it puts itself – not only morally, but also in practice – above the question of whether there is a legal framework at all, both for its content and for its organization. It allows constitutional improvisation, as it were, with the approval of public opinion and the international community. Once the people have given their blessing (it is not too naive to trust that a large majority of those entitled to vote will vote for ‘one person one vote’) the legitimacy of the result and the resulting electoral law will not be in question.
It cannot be ruled out that an extra-legal method will ultimately be chosen to complete the ‘inevitable’ assignment before the ‘inevitable’ deadline (the use of quotation marks is also inevitable due to the political context). Essentially, this would mean that the reform is passed with a normal majority (ie not 2/3) and that it is only enshrined in the constitution (or with a 2/3 majority) at a later stage. This kind of pragmatic/elegant solution naturally entails a risk: The hoped-for consensus must at some point translate into the hoped-for election result.
In light of this, it seems quite certain that the next elections will take place no later than 25 May 2025, if only for the same reason why the current Assembly and coalition simply continue to do their thing: Even more than a constitutional decision, the right to exist stands or falls of a political power by the grace of the international community (and its many stakeholders).
But why is the whole thing such a great gift? Well, provided a little capacity for interpretation and mental elasticity – both of which I foresee no shortage in Suriname, neither among politicians nor among the people – Suriname will also succeed in turning a duty into a virtue, a problem into an opportunity and from a worry to a blessing(s).
Because of the CHof ruling, Suriname has a unique mandate (even though it was not intended as such) to implement the necessary reforms that would not succeed in a normal political climate. Every draftsman pur sang, every politician worthy of the name, should feel like a kid in a candy store right now. He/she now just gets an alibi thrown into his lap to finally be able to convert the ideas he/she is supposed to have into legislative work. Of course, not all politicians start their office with an equally broad ideological baggage (an essential topic like this is not on everyone’s checklist), but that is not even a must in this case. It is sufficient for a few specialists (albeit from the ‘one person one vote’ camp) to take their like-minded people with them and then suddenly work on all the articles of the electoral regulation that need revision. So not just the numbers 9 and 24.
An opportunity like this to start with a clean slate, to fundamentally change the electoral system, may not present itself again soon. The road to success is open simply because failure is not an option this time. And whether 2 articles, or 10, or all of them are changed, that hardly changes the chance of success. Finally, the required 2/3 majority (or other degree of required consensus) remains unchanged.
That is why the legislator should not be blinded by the contours of the current model with its district system. Hopefully the social ambition and heyt political insight beyond simply making the existing electoral regulation CHof-compliant. Hopefully, the law’s updates won’t be limited to cosmetic surgeries that ignore the fact that its very foundations need updating. By that I mean the division into districts themselves and not just the aspects deriving from those districts that have not passed constitutional scrutiny. It is of course true that there is something wrong with the most recently used distribution key regarding the number of seats per district. An update of that distribution key – actually a simple application of the mathematical rule of 3 – would perhaps provide sufficient solace for testing against the otherwise very vague article 55 of the constitution. had to interpret. It may be said that the Court has gone quite far in its reading of that one sentence, but, in my opinion, could have gone even further.
It should be said, of course, that the decision of the Court must focus primarily on those objections brought before it. It is in this lawyer Serena Muntslag-Essed who should get all the credit for what can now be called the legal question of the year. It is only a pity that her objection was only focused on the ‘one person one vote’ principle. In other words: She only questioned the weight of each vote. Not the range of the voice, not the ability, nor the strength or power if you prefer that word. To put it in the imagery to which the theme lends itself so well: Why was only the key of the house presented for testing, and not the whole house with foundations, walls and all?
Nevertheless (even if it concerns only a weight revision) the consequences of that courageous act are in themselves far-reaching. The legislator is now obliged to come up with a new distribution key and it is not inconceivable that the political landscape will be significantly reshaped as a result.
The discrimination that arises as a result of that outdated distribution key is of course undeniable and the order of magnitude in which this violation takes place is even hallucinatory in a number of districts. In Coronie this error even amounts to around 600 per cent (deviation from the national average). Yet those who look beyond this key issue see a problem that goes beyond this simple arithmetic problem: An important democratic mistake, in particular where the inhabitants of the so-called over-represented districts (Brokopondo, Commewijne,
Coronie, Marowijne, Nickerie, Para, Saramacca, Sipaliwini) have the most to complain about. A problem that arises directly as a result of the division of the country into districts. Those districts – which are hardly created for anything other than electoral purposes and often clumsily – are no less than democratic walls or fences.
Citizens are allowed to look over the fence and observe what the politicians are up to on the other side, but they are not allowed to vote for it. They have to content themselves with candidates within their own fence. Conversely, it is also the case that in this way a political leader may consider his / her approval as ratified in only 1 in 10 districts.
A more fundamental solution is therefore needed than just tinkering with articles 9 and 24 of the electoral regulation. That solution consists in the abolition of constituencies and the introduction (or rather the partial reintroduction) of the national constituency as the best way to guarantee proportional, and therefore fair, representation.
Because let’s face it, constituencies are outdated. The logic behind their creation takes us back to dark periods, without radio, TV, let alone internet. A time when voters and their representatives had few places to meet other than the village square or the church. It is even very strange that the then political class still thought this way in 1987. Or at least did not seem to foresee that this would soon change in the remote areas as well.
With the current system, voters from a specific district are forced to believe that their most suitable representatives necessarily come from that same region. Any room to believe that some natives can also think metropolitan is therefore suppressed (to name just one thorny theme). Residents of, say, Marowijne can now only choose from just over 3% of the democratic/demographic range. In Coronie this is less than 1%. Even in the City this value is below 50%.
Compare it to this: How would the national football team fare if its composition became a mandatory reflection of society? What would the coach think if he were required to select the players based on van district quota and not based on quality or how they best fit into the team? Soon the majority of football-loving Suriname would understand on the basis of results that such a formula does not work. It is no different in politics. It also comes down to having the right man or woman for every position.
I conclude with 2 thoughts that are so playful that it is almost impossible to answer them correctly:
1. Do the proponents of the district system realize that the number of electoral seats is expressed in a natural number? That a double digit margin of error will therefore always occur for the smallest districts, even after continuous adjustment of the distribution key?
2. Why is the Football Rules a more voluminous document than most constitutions? Is this why football is the most important afterthought?
geert camerlinkcx/ eyesonsuriname